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The Voter ID Law, Explained

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With the midterm elections fast approaching, it’s hard to imagine that the voting situation in Texas could get any more confusing.

On Thursday, a district judge* struck down the state’s controversial voter ID law, which required photo identification issued under a name that matches the voter registry in order to cast a ballot. In her 147-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, of Corpus Christi, found the law unconstitutional, noting that it amounted to “an unnecessary poll tax” and discriminated against minority voters. (Pretty much every high-profile politician running for office in Texas has also struggled adhering to the law.) She also highlighted the long history of discrimination that has “permeated all aspects of life in Texas.”

The decision coincided with a Supreme Court decision striking down a similar law in Wisconsin. The high court issued an emergency order blocking the state from implementing the law, which a federal district judge deemed unconstitutional in April.

Over the weekend, both proponents and opponents of the law filed pleas to the Fifth Circuit, with both sides claiming “their timeline would better prevent confusion at the polls.” The state asked for a stay on Ramos’ decision, while Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott appeals it. A three-judge panel would then determine the timeline for hearing the appeal.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the case also entered a filing Sunday asserting that the elections should not be administered according to an unconstitutional law, with the Obama administration siding with the law’s challengers

So what does all the back-and-forth mean for Texas and the upcoming elections? A big mess and a whole lot of confusion for voters. Legal experts believe there would be “massive confusion at the polls” if the law is allowed to stand on Election Day, according to the Houston Chronicle. On the other hand, Abbott told the San Antonio Express-News the courts should “allow the status quo” to stand through the elections to reduce voter uncertainty.

Even if Abbott’s appeal of the ruling proved to be successful, there’s still the role of the Supreme Court to consider, further complicating matters. Texas would likely be subject to the same scrutiny as Wisconsin, reports the Dallas Morning News:

Because the Texas and Wisconsin laws are similar—with Texas’ law considered the strictest in the nation—Abbott’s appeal could run into a roadblock even if he is initially successful with the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That is where he will lodge his appeal of Ramos’ Thursday’s decision.

“Even if the Texas ruling is stayed by the Fifth Circuit, there is a strong likelihood that the Supreme Court will do the same thing in the Texas case that it did in Wisconsin because the evidence is much stronger and because Texas, unlike Wisconsin, has a history of voter discrimination,” said Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer who’s an expert on election laws. Wood testified for the plaintiffs in the voter ID trial last month.

But even if the law is void, allowing Hispanics and African Americans to show up to the polls on November 4, it’s still unlikely to turn the tide in what’s become an ugly gubernatorial race. Additionally, as Wayne Thorburn noted at Politico, greater Hispanic presence at the polls probably won’t “turn Texas blue.”

For now, it’s up to the courts to decide what Texans must do to vote on Election Day.

*Correction: A previous version of this article said this decision was handed down by the Fifth Circuit, not a district judge. We regret the error. 

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